Just what is Onegin's problem? The alienation embodied by Pushkin's anti-hero obviously struck a powerful chord for Tchaikovsky – he wrote an immense symphony, after all, based on Byron's version of the character type (Manfred) – yet it's not until Tatyana's name-day party at the beginning of the second act in Seattle Opera's new production that we start to get a concrete sense of his identity.

Marjukka Tepponen (Tatyana) and John Moore (Onegin) © Sunny Martini
Marjukka Tepponen (Tatyana) and John Moore (Onegin)
© Sunny Martini

Director Tomer Zvulun uses freeze-frame moments and later has the crowd break the fourth wall to underscore Onegin’s sense of isolation. Their angry, accusatory gestures lay bare the viciousness bolstering the conventional society he's destined to rebel against. Zvulun inserts a few other touches that imply a concept, most notably, a pair of aged alter egos representing the tragically misaligned Tatyana and Onegin, who appear briefly onstage to silently confront their younger selves during the crucial scenes when they could have changed their story.

In a production that leans heavily on the traditional, however, such directorial glosses remain too understated, even timid, to cohere into a dramatically effective interpretation. Supported by a five-company consortium of companies from Atlanta (which is helmed by Zvulun) to Hawaii, this staging benefits from a strong creative design team. Sumptuous period costumes (Isabella Bywater) and evocative lighting (Robert Wierzel) blend beautifully with Erhard Rom’s elegiac painted backdrops and Chekhovian birch trees.

Melody Wilson (Olga) and Colin Ainsworth (Lensky) © Sunny Martini
Melody Wilson (Olga) and Colin Ainsworth (Lensky)
© Sunny Martini

Yet all this eloquent mood setting failed to compensate for the unconvincing chemistry between John Moore’s Onegin and the Tatyana depicted by Marjukka Tepponen on opening night. (The casting has changed company by company, with Stephanie Havey stepping in to direct Seattle’s cast.) For the final scene, as Onegin fully realizes the consequences of his empty choices, Moore’s singing emitted flashes of pathos that stood in relief from the blandness dominating elsewhere.

Tepponen shaped her pivotal first-act Letter Scene with sensitivity and moments of ravishing revelation but lost precision in her upper range as the evening wore on. Her attitude in the final confrontation was more of anger than pity and thus less cathartic.

David Leigh, a younger-than-usual Prince Gremin, lacked the patient charisma essential for his big number. With his tender high tenor, Colin Ainsworth made a memorable impact in his leave-taking scene before the duel, and Meredith Arwady, singing with a rich, plummy alto, brought a welcome blend of comforting wisdom and humor to the role of the nurse Filippyevna. Melody Wilson sang with lovely tone but cornily overemphasized Olga’s sunny disposition as a foil to sister Tatyana. Martin Bakari added delightful comic grace notes to his cameo as a foppish Monsieur Triquet.

Act 3 Polonaise © Philip Newton
Act 3 Polonaise
© Philip Newton

Zvulun’s account dwells on the ironic symmetries that shape this emotionally complex opera. At its best, the production clarifies the ongoing contrast between social gatherings and painfully intimate, confessional moments that Tchaikovsky uses to establish the underlying dramatic rhythm of Eugene Onegin.

Conductor Aleksandar Marković skillfully molded the corresponding shifts, from the melancholy to the delirious – the dance numbers came to life with palpable excitement – yet needed more dramatic urgency, particularly in the first act.

“The tables have turned with a vengeance!” exclaims Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams’ rarely staged Summer and Smoke, with its uncanny reminiscence of the dramatic reversal at the climax of Eugene Onegin. But without the passion necessary for that moment to have its crushing payoff, it seems by the final curtain of this production that the furniture has been merely rearranged.

***11